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WV Shows Bipartisan Support for Juvenile Justice Reform

PHOTO: As West Virginia lawmakers prepare for the legislative session, it looks unlikely that a change of control in both House and Senate will derail Gov. Tomblin's push to reform the state's juvenile justice system. Photo credit: Richard Ross, courtesy of Annie E. Casey Foundation.
PHOTO: As West Virginia lawmakers prepare for the legislative session, it looks unlikely that a change of control in both House and Senate will derail Gov. Tomblin's push to reform the state's juvenile justice system. Photo credit: Richard Ross, courtesy of Annie E. Casey Foundation.
December 12, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Control of the West Virginia Legislature may have changed, but juvenile-justice reform still seems likely. It's one of Governor Earl Ray Tomblin's big initiatives for the year, and the long-time Senate president usually gets his proposals though the Legislature.

At a Thursday event unveiling his task force findings on juvenile justice, Tomblin was joined by the incoming Republican Senate majority leader. The man set to take Tomblin's old job - incoming Senate President Bill Cole, R-Bluefield, reportedly was kept away by a conflict, but the governor said he's spoken with Cole about getting reforms passed.

"Absolutely. I think that, even through the political part has changed, the desire to do what's good for West Virginia has not," Tomblin said, "and I look forward to working with both Democrats and Republicans as we continue forward."

Tomblin said he thinks the task force recommendations could cut the population in state juvenile facilities by 40 percent in the next six years and save nearly $60 million. State Sen. Chris Walters, R-Poca, who worked with the task force, said keeping more young offenders in their communities would be better than locking them away.

"These youth are serving longer sentences than the adult counterparts are, and it's really a huge problem," he said. "It's costing the state a lot of money. It's costing our youth - it's costing them a chance to get a good foundation of education within a community."

The state's Republican lawmakers often take a "tough on crime" stance, but Walters said many are coming to realize that incarcerating young people tends to turn them into hardened criminals - while community sentencing has lower recidivism rates and costs less.

"Institutionalizing them is not exactly the best way to go about it," Walters said. "It's not about being tougher on crime or not being tough on crime. It's doing the correct things for 'em so that, as they become adults, they can live a productive lifestyle."

Observers say the success of last year's adult justice reform makes the juvenile version more likely. Alternative sentencing already is reducing the adult inmate population and saving the state money. Supporters say a similar approach would work for young offenders.

The task force's report is online at governor.wv.gov.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV